The secret service technician shifted his weight in an attempt to reach his duffel bag, and the mobile in it. He had to warn Reykjavík headquarters about the trap which was killing the fourth agent just now. Even though his lanky frame moved but mere inches, he could feel excruciating pain rip through his chest with the effort. It was the poison coursing through his veins with every heartbeat. His left hand had gone numb almost at once, the numbness had quickly climbed up his arm afterwards. There were very few toxins able to create such an instant impact and those which did, killed rapidly. Again he tried to reach his bag and failed. The pain had ceased to be so searing, which was a bad sign. The failure of his intercostal muscles settled like a band of steel around his ribcage. Breathing became hard work.
The secret station he was in was built into a smaller mountainside some 120 kilometres southwest of the cable landing point in Seydisfjordur. Unknown to but very few this hub meshed submarine sea cables CANTAT-3, FARICE-1 and the Greenland Connect with two secret lines leading straight to southern England and the east coast of the USA.
During the past years Dagur had often wondered what those secret landing points were, who was behind this comprehensive setup and which organisation had the.clout to install such a global surveillance and communication network. He had never been told by his superiors, he was just one of several agents maintaining it.
Down the hallway from the main maintenance unit he had found the bodies of Fjalar Gudrunsson and Kristin Bjarnarsdottir. He had been unable to locate Arnar Jonsson, the agent who had been the first not to report back from servicing the secret hub. In his mind there was no doubt that Arnar was just as dead as he would be in a few moments.
Interesting that of all things, dying, he felt bad about not being able to bid Hrafn farewell.
A canter is the cure for every evil.
Straker tried to find a comfortable posture, he needed one desperately. Over on the viewing gallery Alec was grinning. Indeed, he was sure his friend was having a good laugh watching him. Foster beside him had the decency to hide his lower face behind a polite hand.
Craning his neck to check on them had not been a good idea, it threw him even further out of balance. The saddle pounded him with a vengeance now. If it wasn’t the pommel in front, which caught him, it was the cantle in the back. The huge gelding trotted in a circle around his riding instructor, oblivious to the pain he was inflicting on body parts Straker had not even known existed in his nether regions and legs. He could feel new sores developing over the old ones from the day before and the day before that one.
“You must be one with the horse, Mr. Straker!” David Redcliff shouted at him. “Try to be one with it.”
By then Straker knew that this was not meant to be sarcastic. The young man was as straightforward and good-natured as his construction manager had told him. He swallowed the acerbic remark he had been about to dish out and made do with throwing him a helpless look, biting down hard on his lower lip to keep from crying out. It was astonishing how badly a few abrasions in the wrong places could hurt. He had not felt as miserable and as incompetent as during the past two days and on this horse for a very, very long time. Worse yet, he had only 4 more days to acquire enough skills to manage a 200 miles long roundtrip ride through rough, mountaineous terrain up North on Iceland.
Greiningardeild Varnarmálastofnunar Íslands, Iceland’s Military Intelligence Service, had contacted IAC a week ago, transmitting a sparsely worded report on trouble with what ultimately was the center of S.H.A.D.O.’s worldwide earthbound communication and surveillance network.
Their own statistics department had told him already several months previously that something had gone wrong, somewhere, somehow. The tide had turned about a year ago: every month more UFOs managed to slip past their defenses than before. At first a barely noticable 1 in 100, it was more like a staggering 1 in 10 these days. Not just that, the aliens lately were rather well-informed on secret S.H.A.D.O. coastal bases, several of their recent convoys and transports, on relief dates for Moonbase and the skydivers.
There had been too many attacks on essential institutions and flights during the past year to be coincidental. When the report came in, it was the missing piece of the puzzle. The hidden meshing hub did not need much maintenance, just checking up on the sodium-sulfur batteries and the turbines, replacement of minor bits and parts, if necessary. The whole system was nearly fit-and-forget, quite unlike the submarine cables themselves which needed constant watching. Normally a secret service technician would do the job, once every three months, tick off the item on a list of duties held at headquarters and be done with it. That was not what had taken place for the past year though. Just how it could have slipped past GVMSI’s notice that three agents in a row had not reported back in, waking up to hard facts only now that a fourth did not return from the hub, was beyond him.
One reason why he had to go on the journey himself was the need to have it out with Iceland’s chief of secret service. Neither IAC, nor S.H.A.D.O. personnel could be everywhere at all times. They were dependant on proper support by international governments. The hub was the single most important earthbound network they had access to. Without it S.H.A.D.O. would be severely crippled.
When Paul Foster pointed out that the hub could be reached on horseback exclusively, he had been somewhat bewildered, but not deterred. If Foster felt up to it, after the riding lessons he had taken at Russell Stone’s manège last year, he had believed he would be fine after some concentrated practise.
Louis had recommended Redcliff, who coached actors for several studios, including Harlington-Straker. He also provided well-trained and well-behaved horses for basic movie scenes.
The young man had not been particularly astonished that the big studio boss himself wanted riding lessons. Instead it was the haste and intensity that came with that wish which amazed him. Two lessons in the morning and two in the afternoon for a whole week were quite a stunt, even for an active athlete. Straker did look as if he still was exercising regularly and he was fit, lean and trim, but sitting a horse and making it do what you wanted was no walkover. The CEO had not explained to him what exactly it was, that he wanted to do on horseback, just that he needed to be able to sit a horse at all paces without falling off immediately, direct it where and stop it when he wanted. A tall order.
“Let’s canter a bit, okay?” Redcliff suggested, not able to watch the other wince through more trotting yet. Albeit bigboned the gelding already was one of his smoothest rides. “Remember? Lower thigh on the off side a hand’s width to the back and squeeze with the inner right at the girth. And don’t fall forward!”
Straker nodded, teeth clenched, and did his best to obey the instructions, wondering whether he would fail again. Redcliff flicking his lunge whip at the horse’s hind quarters and the resulting huge leap off yesterday had quite frightened him, even though the canter was much more agreeable to sit.
It took him a moment to think in terms of what had to go where. Then he gave the horse a slight kick with his inside heel. To his utter relief the huge animal jumped off into a rolling quiet canter, immediately settling half of the aches and pains he felt.
A brilliant, delighted and rather boyish half-smile flashed across Straker’s face.
“Excellent!” Redcliff said. “Keep him going, sit upright, heels down.”
After a further two full circles the riding instructor brought the horse to a halt.
“That was well done, Mr. Straker,” he said. “I think we should call it a day. You both need some rest.”
Redcliff stepped up to the horse and took hold of the reins, allowing Straker to dismount at leisure.
Time which was needed. Straker contemplated jumping off with dash, the way he observed the experienced riders do, but thought better of such a stunt. Unlocking his cramped legs and sliding down was difficult enough. The moment he hit the sand he could feel his knees buckle. A quick grab at the stirrup leather saved him from a rather ignominious spill to the ground. His legs felt as if there still was half a ton of horse between them when he finally managed to walk out of the manège. Freeman and Foster waited alongside of the stable hand who took over the horse and mumbling away to himself in what clearly was criticism ran a hand down its off fore in a quick check as if thinking Straker had done harm.
Alec schooled his features into an expression of bland interest, careful to hide his amusement. Straker looked absolutely whacked, he was pale, soaked with sweat, and walked with what must have been quite some discomfort.
He had warned him of course. The only S.H.A.D.O. officer into fox hunting, Alec was an accomplished rider and had a good idea of what his friend was going through given the crash course Straker had committed himself to. He had offered to go to Iceland instead, but somewhere along the line Straker had gotten stubborn as a pig. It may even have been his open amusement which had made the commander dig his heels in. Still, it was difficult keeping a straight face listening to the stream of inventive expletives Straker kept coming while folding into the passenger seat of his car.
“You should see Shroeder, you know?” Freeman said. “Saddle sores aren’t going to help you achieve what you want.”
Straker grunted, still trying to find a way to sit without pain.
“You really should leave it to Paul and me,” Freeman continued. “Setting this straight isn’t much of a problem.”
“Headquarters, Alec,” Straker said at last. “While I appreciate your offer, and believe me, by now I really do, I need to meet the Icelandic CSS myself. The Iceland hub is much too vital for us to risk him misunderstanding the seriousness of the situation.”
“So meet him in Reykjavik, and Paul and I will make the ride out to the hub.” Freeman said. “You can chew him up all you want without making the field trip.”
Straker gave a wry chuckle.
“That’s what I tried to set up with this Unnur Halldirsdottir first, right after Paul told me about the only way up to the hub.” Straker said. “No dice! We were told that the only way to meet the CSS is to accompany him up to the hub. I think Ford has been sparing me just how pissed he is about losing four agents on what they considered a routine job. I’ll have him grasp how I feel about the hub going public for a year.”
Alec chuckled and stopped in front of the guardhouse, waiting for the watch to wave them through. He could well imagine that discussion without even being there.
“Boss?” Ragnar Smillasson called from his office.
Unnur tried to ignore her secretary’s voice. She was reading what Section 7 had compiled on the American film executive she had been told to suck up to. To her surprise the minister of defence himself had phoned late at night last week and ordered her to obey that civilian in every respect.
This could only mean several things, for one the minister was quite aware of her reputation for making independant decisions and sticking by them. For another, she was again about to be degraded to comply with the commands of some unknown outside agency she knew nothing about.
It also meant he knew about her other misgivings.The secret meshing hub had been a tender spot with her ever since it had come under her authority. Unnur had acquired her position during the upheavals resulting from the coalition government collapse a decade ago. Independence and national self-determination were high on her agenda. There simply was no excuse for permitting another country or entity to run their affairs.
That was a yell. With a sigh she laid the report aside, there was not much to be found in it anyway. Even the photo was too blurred to get an idea of what that guy looked like, except that he was rather fairhaired, a trait many people living on this island shared.
Her secretary’s office was located at the other end of the narrow, ancient turf house they used as headquarters near Seydisfjordur. Its near-perfect insulation was a boon during harsh winters, but it also meant that the only two rooms with natural light lay on opposite sides of the structure. Visitors were often taken aback by the casual tone Ragnar maintained with her. Hollering for her instead of using the intercom was just one sample.
His room was cooler than hers, he had a thing going about fresh air and open windows. Outside a mixture of rain and snow was pelting the coast, the sea a roiling, slate-grey creature crowned in white foam. Unnur shuddered at the sign of oncoming autumn storms. They had a time window of barely 4 weeks left to make it to the hub and back.
Ragnar was bent over what looked like microfilm printouts. His shock of strawberry blonde hair was combed into his face, obscuring keen grey eyes. Unlike her he dressed carefully, shopping in the more expensive men’s fashion boutiques in Reykjavik. Today he wore a narrow russet suit made of some shiny elegant fabric over a traditional Icelandic pullover. The resulting mix was one of casual urban refinement, rather unexpectant in rural Seydisfjordur.
“What do you have?” she asked.
“Intelligence reports,” he answered. “Going by the filing system I’d say KGB and FSB, some is 15 to 20 years old, some is fairly recent. According to them your film executive used to be USAF. A full Colonel in the end, going strong towards his first star. Then he dropped entirely off the radar, to resurface as the boss of a sizable film studio in southern England. Quite some career change, eh?”
“How did we come by these? Where did you find them?” Unnur asked, eyebrows lifted in surprise. That was more than what Section 7 had been able to dig up.
“Our Finnish division, I suspect.” Ragnar shrugged. “You know computers, they are literal and stupid, still. I decided to search for Edward and Edwin Straker, not just that Ed Straker his office told us is his name. This here was the catch.”
“Good thinking,” she smiled and accepted the portfolio into which he had swept the printouts. “See what you can find out about longterm weather forecasts for the trip up the mountains. I want to be prepared.”
Back in her own office she studied the sheets he had come up with. Some was in Cyrillic print, some had been translated prior to putting it onto microfilm. The Russian was no problem, she was fluent.
Indeed the reading was very interesting: Straker had been an officer with a spotless career. He had only the very best credentials and references from everyone he had served under. Neither the abrupt abandonment of his military career, nor the come-back as head of a film studio made much sense. Especially in view of what the minister of defence had told her to do for the guy. Well, she had him all to her own for more than two weeks. She would solve that puzzle, along with the one the hub still was.
Doug Jackson took a deep breath and, steeling himself for the invisible waves of resentful dislike inexorably bound to emanate from the commander, walked into the treatment room.
Without Miss Ealand’s intervention Straker would not have come to seek medical care at all. It was her making an appointment without even asking Straker first which had brought the commander down to him in what clearly was a very foul mood.
Not that Straker showed his displeasure in any blatant manner these days. It had been years that he had openly exhibited his profound aversion to Doug, an aversion the commander shared with the majority of S.H.A.D.O.’s staff. After all this time Jackson had grown used to that. But the blast of icy hostility he expected to being the result of such a major invasion of privacy might need an extra steeling of the inner defenses.
It never came. The commander was stretched out flat on the examination couch, on his belly and asleep, his features for once relaxed in deep repose. Jackson quickly closed the distance, concerned by such atypical conduct. Making a fast, cursory examination, fingertips barely brushing Straker’s skin while feeling for the pulse and checking temperature, he sighed with relief when it became clear that the man was just done for by what he had exposed himself to.
The basic concern remained, though. Straker never stirred, while Jackson had assumed that his low-key manipulations would be enough to wake him without startling him. He knew from past in-patient stays that Straker had a very light sleep. Running his sharp observant eyes down the still form, Jackson finally hissed. He bent over Straker’s thighs with an abrupt hawk-like interest and using tissue forceps tried lifting the fabric away from the skin. The commander immediately came alive with a pained cry.
“Well,” Jackson drawled. “I can see the problem now. You need to take those trousers off so I can do something about it.”
Straker lifted himself up on his elbows, tiredly rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers. Still there was no hostility, just weariness. Jackson walked over to where they kept a variety of treatment fluids, putting on as businesslike a mien as he could, and picked up a bottle of saline solution.
“That’s going to feel cold,” he said, then poured the fluid where blood and secretion had caked and stuck fabric to skin. Straker hung his head in resignation, chuckled after a few moments.
“I guess everyone down here and upstairs is laughing by now,” Straker said, acknowledging the humour in the situation. “The big boss with a sore butt and a set of, uhm, cracked nuts.”
Jackson could not help a snicker and peeled back the trousers as gently as he could. The damage revealed was quite extensive and made him click his tongue with surprise. He could not imagine how Straker had been able to sit a horse inspite of this mess. The doctor applied Xylocaine solution liberally wherever he could make out injured and chafed skin. The profound relief that induced in Straker was conspicuous, the man was taking his first deep and untroubled breath in what must have been hours.
“I wouldn’t think so, Commander,” Jackson answered. “It’s not exactly public knowledge what you were up to the past days. Your friends may have had a laugh at your expense, but they’re also discreet, and good friends.”
Straker looked around at the doctor, astonished by what had to be compassion in the tone and the words. Not what he had expected in Doug Jackson of all people. The man did one of his nervous, bird-like on the spot dances he had come to recognize as part of his decision-making process.
“May I make a suggestion, Commander?” Jackson finally asked, bending back over Straker’s thighs, applying more sprays, skin rebuilders still deemed experimental outside of HQ, but found to be very effective by S.H.A.D.O. surgeons who had been using them for several months now. Straker nodded, craning his head to look at what was being done to him.
“Stay off horses tomorrow,” Jackson continued. “Give your body a chance to heal itself. I’ll give you an ointment which will strengthen the skin and deaden some of the pain. Use it. Tell that riding master that all you need to know is how to post trot and gallop, how to use the reins and not upset the horse. There’s no need for you to develop a classic dressage seat which is what, well, caused this.” Jackson waved a hand into the direction of the sores.
“I didn’t know you’re a horseman,” Straker said.
Jackson shook his head.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “My wife used to ride at competition levels. Sometimes she’d pester me until I rode out with her and that’s what she taught me. It was enough to keep me comfortable on, uhm, a well-behaved horse. You will have to insist on such a one, I’d say.”
Straker was about to ask about the wife he also had known nothing of, but something in the doctor’s expression kept him from doing so. Jackson turned rather abruptly and rummaged through several drawers of the apothecary cabinet until he lifted out a small plastic pot with a satisfied grunt. Another drawer produced a large, clear tube containing a gel-like substance.
“Adeps Cervinus,” he said, pointing at the pot. “Rendered, medicinal deer tallow. There’s nothing which works better, keeps skin from becoming sore. Racing cyclists and marathon runners use it. Take it with you to Iceland, and apply liberally every morning. And this is the skin ointment to use during the next 24 hours. Careful, use gloves when applying that stuff, it contains DMSO.”
“What’s DMSO?” Straker asked, puzzled.
“Dimethyl sulfoxide,” Jackson explained. “It’s a solvent which penetrates the skin very readily and when mixed with pharmaceuticals it carries these through the skin into the system. It’s also an efficient painkiller. You don’t need to have your hands numbed though, do you?”
He placed container and tube with a beatific smile in Straker’s hands.
For the first time since the Polish doctor had joined S.H.A.D.O. the commander looked into Jackson’s face and wondered whether he had been correct in believing this expression to be pure cynicism.